Nothing Beside Remains

A version of this paper was read aboard a coach, while returning from a municipal landfill site in Dunbar. Global Shadow, Local Mist was organized by Laura Yiule and funded by Collective Gallery, Edinburgh. Thanks to them, to the other speakers, and to all those that made the journey.

I have been asked to say a few words on the idea of waste to pose some questions rather than provide some neat answers. Which is just as well, since I’d like to suggest to you that one of the peculiar characteristics of things that we call ‘waste’ is their strange suggestibility, their enigmatic power to pose questions whose attending answers, in the end, feel rather excessive, superfluous, or insufficient. Before I say how and why I think waste has that power, a poem:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … near them on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away’.– [1]

Starting a talk by reading Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ while returning from a municipal landfill might seem to you perversely and retroactively Romantic, a bit like your Uncle Fred bellowing out an operatic aria at a warehouse party; cranky, maybe a bit deluded, certainly out of touch with the expectations of these ‘modern’ times. Isn’t the imagined antique land described in Shelley’s poem and the ruinous fragments that emerge from its textual sands, just so far removed from the putridly modern reality of Dunbar’s wastes, that we can learn nothing from their comparison? Since, isn’t this literary romanticism exactly the opposite to the engaged, responsible, and sober critique that is inculcated by enlightened travellers in more contemporary lands, who urge us to face the wastes that usher in The Anthropocene and spell the immanence of our curious End Times? These rhetorical questions lead to and imply other injunctions –forget the waste of the past because we need to speak more urgently about the waste of the present – forget Ozymandias and his mighty works, what about the creative destruction of neoliberal capitalism and its ‘ruins of modernity’? Forget literary art and its ‘traditions’, we need to speak about the current wastes of melting polar ice caps, nuclear fall out, the Great Pacific garbage patch, and the many other toxic vortices of waste production and environmental depletion.

This obligation and desire to think about the ‘now’ of waste fascinates me. It fascinates me because it imagines that humans – and lets be specific, especially the kind of humans who ride about on buses on a Sunday afternoon, thinking about the meaning of waste – can gift time and, with it, meaning to the things that are abandoned, cast out, redundant, or without use, making waste the evidence of a much wider social, environmental, and historical ‘moment’. By this circular logic, it’s up to us – whoever we take ourselves to be – to decide how waste matters, what it signifies, and what it means for us. This, I think, is an ethics that habours an anthropocentric, overdetermined, and therefore deeply problematic understanding of how objects are felt and described – where ‘we’ must decide how ‘they’, non-human things, come to ‘mean’, and how ‘they’ relate to pasts, presents, and futures.

So, even as objects of waste suggest temporal end times and thus the immanent intractability of our interests and designs, the urgency to attend to waste as being especially present, modern, or contemporary, begs the question – present, modern, and contemporary to what and for whom? I want to probe how waste comes to be resonant with significance, where a cigarette end on the street can conjure thoughts of lips and lungs and the precarious employment contracts of road-sweepers, the fabled powers of the PR industry, your schoolyard smoking spot and the late-night pleasures of other events, fantasies, memories, in ways that a yet-to-be smoked cigarette cannot.

I take this resonant potential to appear not in what ‘exists’ – in the here and now of my encounters with the cigarette end – but in what is conspicuously absent. This, I believe, is not something I necessarily create or construct, but is an emergent property of the time made and taken from waste things. The way this thing that gets called ‘waste’ gains a rather magic, telling and evidential status, this power to both denote and connote a multitude of interpretations about the world, is not simply gained because it has entered into a municipal waste-management system, but because it has entered a peculiar form of time, one that emerges out of its status as a ‘has-been’, taken as a remainder or trace of action whose relation to the past is suspended in its presence, making its presence, its actual being or ‘reality’, shot through with an absence that animates it as a thing that has come to be by having been. Asking what waste is for me is, therefore, to ask how its relation to ‘someone’ has been done and undone over time.

If this sounds like nothing more than an entertaining riddle it may be because I want to wrestle the experience of making and encountering waste away from those who would make facts through things as if our relations with the material world was a mere matter of accurate description or methodological technique. And I want to come to terms with the unstable vitality of things which work upon, with and against our bodies, a universe of matter that swirls in and through us – composed as we are of molecular things and influenced by the microbial communities in our guts; co-dependent as we are on the wheels of this bus going round and round upon the road’s asphalt surface, the automatic traffic lights turning from red to green… ; hence, the many different objects collected and stored in a landfill site are, in my view, a fantastic assemblage of things where the projective time of human action has been placed in weird abeyance.

This is why it seems slightly ridiculous to me to speak of ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ wastes as a privileged place to think about ‘who we are’, since this seems to me to follow a logic that is somehow cut adrift not only from the material constitution of how that ‘we’ is composed, but also cut adrift from the combined and convolved tenses that constitute how an experience with waste necessarily implies what a thing did and was and is and does. This rather more complicated conception of waste skews and queers how we experience the world of things. Robert Smithson expressed this well when he wrote that “buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built. This anti-romantic mise-en-scene suggests the discredited idea of time and many other ‘out of date’ things”[2] Of course, Smithson is right that this is an anti-romantic mise-en-scene, it sees the temporal end of a relationship with the building before the first kiss of construction; but he is wrong in the suggestion that his concept of ruins-in-reverse is anti-Romantic, since the notion of waste acting across times and places and tenses is precisely how it reaches us as such, as waste, and especially in works typically associated with literary Romanticism like… ‘Ozymandias’.

And so we return to Shelley’s transcript and to ‘Ozymandias’ as a poem of distinct utility. It describes how objects of ruin and waste make strange monuments. Does the ruinous state of the Ozymandias statue remain a testimony to the king’s “Works” or a refutation of them? Do these ‘Works’ contain their destruction as ruins in reverse? Answers to these questions are not hard to come by. So much depends upon how we read the word “remains”. As both substantive and verb we can understand “remains” to describe the “lone and level sands” and the statue itself. Such duplicity is not really ‘understanding’ in the fixed and eternal sense of the term, but a speculation that produces other questions; what remains beside the remains? Does nothing, sheer absence, ‘exist’ next to the shattered, material remainders of Ozymandias? Does what remains of the statue represent an outpost of last resistance against the corrosive demands of time, or do the sands show the eroded future of those stones? This indicates to me some of the temporal enigmas of waste – a time of false endings that renders waste both a monument to consummation and transience, a utopic trace that demonstrates the transference of information across centuries, and the dystopic dissolution of all things into the condition of dust, sand, and other inchoate particles that tell of nothing, an absolute void.

If we find things in the landfill that ‘speak’ or ‘tell’ of the work of others, whether the sculpture’s art or the despot’s rule, then I’d only like to encourage you to use the opportunity to answer back to things with a set of questions: what kind of time is made and taken from things that are discarded? Do you feel novel or new? Does this thing emerge from the black hole of the past into the luminous clarity of the contemporary? Or are we witnessing something neither present nor absent, original nor ancient, but something that hovers in-between a set of questions and the many answers that can be made through things.

Further Reading

Chapman, John. “‘Rubbish Dumps’ or ‘Places of Deposition’? Neolithic and Copper Age Settlements in Central and Eastern Europe.” In Neolithic Orkney in its European Context. Edited by Anna Richie, 347–362. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2000.

Hell, Julia., and Andreas Schönle, ed. Ruins of Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

Rathje, William. “The Archaeology of Us.” In Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Yearbook of Science and the Future: 1997. Edited by Charles Ciegelski, 158–177. New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1996.

—., and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Poems of Shelley Volume 2: 1817–19, ed. Kelvin Everest and Geoffrey Matthews. Harlow: Pearson, 2000.

Smithson, Robert. Complete Writings of Robert Smithson. Edited by Jack Flam. Berkeley: California UP, 1996.

 

[1] Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias,” in The Poems of Shelley Volume 2: 1817–19, ed. Kelvin Everest and Geoffrey Matthews (Harlow: Pearson, 2000), 2:310–311.

[2] Robert Smithson, ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’, in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, p. 72

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Big Ruins: The Aesthetics and Politics of Supersized Decay – Manchester, Wednesday, 14 May 2014

I’m excited to be involved in the ‘Big Ruins’ conference, to be held in Manchester later this year. Conference organiser, Paul Dobraszczyk, describes the event: “As global capitalism intensifies its hold on the planet, so its ruins are scaling up in size: from vast junkyards of jumbo-jets in Nevada to entire empty cities in China waiting to be inhabited. Meanwhile the urban ruins of the Cold War era continue to resist appropriation, whether because of their toxicity, ideological misplacedness, or as a consequence of intractable ethnic conflicts. Coupled with a recent plethora of (post)apocalyptic visions of ruined cities in cinema and computer games, the links between real and imagined ruination are becoming increasingly blurred. If we are to imagine large-scales sites of decay, how might their possible ruin be represented in a way that helps us adequately respond to that very possibility?

This conference will address that question by focusing on the wider significance of big ruins in an age of global capitalism. Drawing from a wide range of sites – both real and imagined – this conference aims to create a dialogue between big ruins and the culturally-prescient theme of the imagination of disaster and to open up an emancipatory space that, following Slavoj Žižek, accepts the universal inevitability of ruin in order to break its ideological grasp and thus to suggest liberating alternatives.”

The event is free and you can register here.

Confirmed speakers and paper titles are:

Keynote

Tim Edensor: ‘Ruins are everywhere’

• Formations

Luke Bennett: ‘The ruins of ruins’

Michael Crang: ‘Mired but alive’: the aesthetic taming of toxicity

• Ideologies

Anca Pusca: ‘Postcommunist ruins: the fine line between decay vs. rebuilding’

Mark Sanderson: ‘Derelict utopias’

Matthew Philpotts: ‘Rocket-fuelled ruin: Re-territorialising the traces of German dictatorship’

• Explorations

Emma Fraser: ‘Reading the ruins of Detroit: poetic, dialectical and phenomenological approaches’

Clare O’Dowd: ‘Gregor Schneider and the ghost towns’

Paul Dobraszczyk: ‘40 years later: ruin gazing in Varosha’

Camilla Røstvik: ‘Like sleeping dragons: an exploration of the ruins of CERN’

• Futures

Carl Lavery & Lee Hassall: ‘Return to Battleship Island: Future of Ruins’

William Viney: ‘Futures in ruin’

Andrew Hardman: ‘Where is my apocalypse? Living in a ruined future’

‘Future Ruins’, Published in a New Collection, Edited by John Scanlan and J.F.M. Clark

9781443849128I have had the piece ‘Future Ruins’ published in the collection Aesthetic Fatigue: Modernity and the Language of Waste, ed. John Scanlan and J. F.M. Clark (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2013), pp. 138–158. Other contributors include Steven Connor, Timothy Cooper, and Harvie Ferguson, among many others. My contribution to this eclectic collection of writings expands upon a post available on this website. It works over the temporalities at stake when we project ruins into the future, revealing, I think, how we depend upon times of use and waste to call upon different kinds of future. Rereading some of this, especially in light of Mel Chen’s  work on the concept of ‘animacy’,  has led me rethink some of the ways we make our futures active or inactive, according to the objects we use to populate yet unrealised environments. In the end, there are some simple ideas contained here – on how waste carries and animates time; how waste is not simply a thing of retrospective contemplation (i.e. the nostalgic has-beens of a time past) but a concept which enlivens how we conceive our potential; and that thinking on the possibilities of wasted futures requires a mode of narrative thinking, one that is as much about the here and now as it is about the future.

“The Stupendous Past”: Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins

A version of this text was presented at The Writing of Rose Macaulay, in Her Historical and Cultural Context, held at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 23 September, 2011. Special thanks to Dr. Kate Macdonald for organising this event.

Rose Macaulay’s late, great work, Pleasure of Ruins is one of the first books to give an expanded history of architectural decay. It represents an inquisition into the images, philosophy, theology, archaeology and literature of ruin. And, moreover, it is a book that allows its subject matter to infect its logic and form: it is a sprawling and enigmatic work; an excessive and truly stupendous book. I’d like to suggest to you that Rose Macaulay explores what it means to write about ruins, the first of its kind to analyse in any extensive manner the relationship between the disappearance of buildings and the disappearance of words used to describe them.

I. Beginnings 

But, before I get carried off into the labyrinthine quality of this work, a word of caution; a warning that seeks to qualify what Rose Macaulay says about ruins and what I, in turn, have to say about her:

Ruin is always over-stated; it is part of the ruin-drama staged perpetually in the human imagination, half of whose desire is to build up, while the other half smashes and levels to the earth.[1]

Pleasure of Ruins is neither a work of fiction nor a scholarly journey into the purely nonfictional, but a book that follows the affective qualities of its subject to make extravagant movements between the actual and the invented. Emphasising her emphatic belief in the ruin-mindedness of human beings, Rose Macaulay’s nonfiction is thick with fictional drama, breaking down its subject only to rebuild it through a dialectical, allegorical potential through which pasts blend into the present. This provocative nature of ruin is summarised by Byron in Canto X of Don Juan, “A grey wall, a green ruin, rusty pike, / Make my soul pass the equinoctial line / Between the present and past worlds, and hover / Upon their airy confine, half-seas-over.”[2] And, I think, in form and content, Pleasure of Ruins leaves us with a tipsy sense of overstated disquiet.

Simply opening the pages of Pleasure of Ruins soon reveals its airy and enormous referential range. It has a variety of genre – poetic, epistolic, biblical, mythological, scientific and archaeological – and an equally impressive variety of historical sources. Macaulay takes extensive quotations from Egyptian, Classical, Mediaeval, Renaissance and Early Modern, 18th, 19th and 20th century texts. I’ll have more to say about this referential depth later but until then I think it is worth noting at the outset that Macualay’s relentless engagement with the writing of others is one of the overriding features of the book, it is her chosen mode of overstatement. So, Rose is clearly not the first to write with or about ruin; indeed, she was not even the first Macaulay to write with or about ruin.

Gustave Doré, “The New Zealander,” in London: A Pilgrimage, ed. Blanchard Jerrold (London: Grant, 1872).

 

Concluding an article for the Edinburgh Review in 1840, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Rose’s first cousin twice removed, introduced an image of ‘the New Zealander’ to the British public. He used a projective image of London’s ruin to argue that Catholicism “may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”[3] So prevalent did this idea of the inquisitive and judgmental New Zealander become that by 1865 Punch placed it on their list of ruined rhetoric, literary devices judged to be “used up, exhausted, threadbare, stale and hackneyed.”[4] As a side note, many of you may be familiar with Gustave Doré’s rendering of this exhausted image; it shows that racial and political outsider, wandering from the periphery of things to visit the fallen core of an empire now past. It is of course the inverse image of the grand tour we receive in Pleasure of Ruins. The sentiment shared between Thomas Macaulay’s invocation of the New Zealander and Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins concern the travels and transportations afforded by ruin, the temporal and spatial mediation that makes ruin a thing in and of history; a thing through which we engage and refashion the past and a powerful object with which we might fashion the future.

II. Writing, Imagination, Democracy

Since writing is Rose Macualay’s chosen mode of temporal and poetic transportation, I think it worth calling into question how writing informs what she calls her “random excursion into a fantastic world” (PR, xvii). She goes on to claim that it is impossible to capture the “true” ruin (ibid) – they are constantly changing, evolving and dissolving. And, compounding this material mutability, ruins share many attributes with writing; their dubious truth is always in danger of being subsumed within the contingent terms of human representation. “ruins are always on the wing” writes Macaulay, “piece by piece they crumble away, or are transformed into something else, we stalk them down the centuries, surprising them at intervals, pinning them down, and in each stage they are less” (PR, 234). In one respect, writing about ruin serves to arrest the mutability of decay but in another respect writing suffers a comparable capacity for fragmentary obsolescence – recall the scattered prayer books which litter The World My Wilderness, the “drift of grey ashes” that signal the destruction of Miss Anstruther’s letters, or, as Macaulay wrote to Sylvia Lynd, “the charred pages of my books” that were behind after the bombing raid in 1941.[5] What emerges in these images of written decay is a familiar sentiment regarding the futility and contingency of graphic description, equally at home in the Romanticism of, say, Shelley’s fading coals as it is in the textual supplementarity of poststructural linguistics: we might try to pin ruins down but can do so only partially; they will always be less and less and less, and even that which we do manage to pin down cannot compensate for the loss of the rest. Little wonder, then, that Macaulay compares ruins to “the extant fragments of some lost and noble poem” (PR, xvii).

In her hands, ruins are a series of lost words among a world of disappearing inscriptions, fragments shored with and against words. That writing might be compared to the extant fragments of some lost and noble ruin might help to explain the extraordinary number of quotations she uses to weave her history of ruin pleasure. Perhaps her architectural subjects can only speak through these textual fragments, not so much as a tissue of quotations but more like a ruinous, polyvocal mass of extant linguistic fragments, none of which may adequately stand for a lost whole or guarantee an origin to the ruinous tradition from which Pleasure of Ruins so energetically issues. A tumbling series of quotations, expressed in a grammatical form that Sarah LeFanu has described as “a tottering pile of clauses and phrases.”[6] In both senses of the word, Macaulay’s is a work of fractured stanza. This is what makes her excursion into a world of fantasy such a modern one; it is a journey into the doubtful powers of form and transcription.

Driven by the complex uncertainties of ruins and their powers to unbalance the factual accuracies of writing, Macaulay argues that ruins make “poets and artists of nearly all tourists” (PR, 73) – ruins give a licence to roam; her book is largely dedicated to recording the records of the more rapturous and fantastical responses to Classical ruin, to which she is both an aloof and enthusiastic contributor. Ruins, for Macaulay, are “the ghosts of dead ages sleeping together” (PR, 127). In these rhapsodic fantasies, often motivated by the whispered hearsay of history, we find almost a truism of contemporary ruin theory that has been neatly summarised by Christopher Woodward, in his book called In Ruins. Precisely because ruins are materially incomplete, writes Woodward, “each spectator is forced to supply the missing pieces from his or her own imagination.”[7] Hardly a revelation, one might reasonably think, but it is an intuition important to the poetic qualities Macaulay and many others attribute to ruins. Their supplementary quality operates on textual, visual as well as epistemological levels; we do not necessarily ‘experience’ ruins directly or by miraculous isolation, but do so by mediating their liminal effects that transport our attention beyond and across the material we encounter. Our experience and consequent interpretation of ruined places become dominated by structures of metonymic correspondence and spectral supplementarity, an experience of architecture metered by a rich interplay between absent and present entities. Ruins, by definition, are engines of speculation. “Such guesses”, writes Macaulay, “are among the ruin-taster’s imaginative enjoyment” (PR, 42). Here we reach a certain kind of democratic universalism – whether you be an experienced archaeologist returning to a familiar site or a young child visiting a ruin for the first time – the pleasure of ruins is open to all. “there is room” writes Macaulay, for “all approaches in that ruin-wilderness” (PR, 213).

As I have already noted, Pleasure of Ruins argues that ruin is a cognitive quality common to all humanity, “The human race is, and always has been, ruin-minded. The literature of all ages has found beauty in the dark and violent forces, physical and spiritual, of which ruin is one symbol” (PR, 20); she goes on to speak, in overstated terms, of “that eternal ruin-appetite which consumes the febrile and fantastic human mind” (PR, 39). And yet, Macaulay is keen to explore the rather prosaic and historically divisive specificity of architectural ruin – so that they mean certain things about certain people at certain times. The “ghosts of dead ages” might be sleeping together but they are not allowed to sleep in equal comfort – Macaulay, like so many other ruin writers, hosts some ghosts and banishes others. Now I must tread carefully, there’s a finger-wagging dead end to be avoided; I will not dwell on Macaulay’s frequent allusions to those “greedy and ignorant Arabs” (PR, 135) and their disproportionate abuse of the ruins she so dearly loves. Instead, I prefer to focus on how she celebrates both the plurality of ruin response and their powers to generate a history of a highly specific nature.

III. ‘Our’ Stupendous Past

The history of ruin, as it is presented to us by Macaulay, is the qualified history of western civilisation. This is a civilisation that issues out of Greece and Rome.

in the ruin-loving dreams of western man, Persia cannot compete. It is Greece and Italy which have always mainly enshrined those wistful, backward-gazing dreams. Perhaps because it was there that our civilization was cradled and grew; we yearn back to these vestiges of our past. Perhaps because we have been bred in a classical culture, given from our youth up to understand there was the glory of the world: hypnotized, our eyes dazzle with it. Here were Socrates, Plato, Pericles, Praxiteles; here was Troy, here was Athens, the Islands, there Magna Graecia, and the tremendousness of Rome. Nothing can compete (PR, 151–152, my emphasis).

Athens becomes “the very centre of ruin-pleasure” (PR, 164). And the fortune of Roman architecture becomes synonymous with ‘history’. “Age by age, piece by piece, history falls with Rome; age by age, piece by piece, history rises as Rome rises; it is the tale of western man” (PR, 165). What can we take from statements like this? I’d like to suggest that it earmarks the duplicity of ruin as an object of historical thought: ruins are open to wild flights of fancy, dramatic moments of overstated superstition, but they can also be stages for calculated and codified acts of historical regulation, the reconstruction of an us and a them, a history of our and theirs, a history populated by victors and losers.

But, as Macaulay frequently points out, ruins are always on the move, always undergoing change, forever torn between survival and dissolution. What, then, becomes of the history that we make by these mutating entities? Although the ‘tale of western man’ might be told through ruin, the architectural basis for this history is under threat. Again, Macaulay equivocates about the paradoxical “ruin of ruins” (PR, 67). Macaulay cannot decide between the fantastic romanticism of decay or the redemptive security of the past, her past, her sense of western civilisation, that might be recovered through these extant fragments.

This conflict is born out in the rough ride that archaeologists receive in Pleasure of Ruins. By being stripped of their picturesque disorder ruins lose their poetic force, their powers of provocation. She speaks of the “familiar tragedy of archaeology—the sacrifice of beauty to knowledge” (PR, 147) and, in a marvellous moment, she claims that “Shelley would have been disgusted” if he could only see the scandal of modern Rome (PR, 202). History, Macaulay’s history, fails not in picturesque ruin but in the ruin of the picturesque – there can be no more screech-owls, toads, bats or creeping ivy once the archaeologists have rolled into town. Archaeologists corrupt the poetic history of decay. Nevertheless, Macaulay also speaks of a Dionysian battle between archaeologists, the “ruin-preservers”, and the “ruin destroyers”, those that have quarried or simply demolished ruins in order to build anew (PR, 177). Archaeology maintains ruins as well as destroys their pleasures. Excavation can make them sites of scientific enquiry that save them from redevelopment, only to lose the overwhelming and overstated effects that are the object of Macaulay’s fascination.

IV. Legacies

In 1953 Pleasure of Ruins was warmly reviewed in the British press. One reviewer, writing for The Times was quick to seal its monumental stature,

There are certain dissertations so balanced, wise, and comprehensive that they go down to future generations as So-and-So on Such-and-Such. Here is one of those rarities: “Macaulay on Ruins.” The theme has been tracked once for all, extensively, exhaustively, with wit and eloquence.[8]

And despite being out of print for decades, Pleasure of Ruins is still revered. Indeed, there has been in recent years something of a ruin fever sweeping through the social sciences and humanities. I think we can reasonably place Macaulay’s book as a precursor to this more recent fad. As a brief indication of the contemporary interest in ruin among academics, here’s a selection of books dedicated to the subject:

Michael S. Roth, Claire Lyons and Charles Merewether, ed., Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 1997).

Robert Ginsberg, The Aesthetics of Ruins (New York: Rodopi, 2004).

Tim Edensor, Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality (Oxford: Berg, 2005).

Dylan Trigg, The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason (New York: Peter Lang, 2007).

Nicholas Yablon, Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of Urban Modernity, 1819-1919 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009).

Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle, ed., Ruins of Modernity (Durham: Duke U P, 2010).

Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (London: Verso, 2010).

Brian Dillon, ed., Ruins (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT, 2011).

Almost all of these reference Macualay’s book, many make a point of acknowledging its formative importance. Robert Ginsberg calls it the “pre-eminent masterpiece of ruin-writing”.[9] And, in his introduction to an anthology published earlier this year, Brian Dillon describes Pleasure of Ruins as “one of the classic studies of the subject”[10].

I’ll end with this: just as responses to ruin are always overstated, it would be wrong of me to overstate Macaulay’s role in the history of ruin writing. Ruins are both a very old and a very contemporary concern. But hers is a distinctive contribution: collating sources from an extraordinary range of generic and historical locations, equivocating the precise relationship between architecture and its description, emphasising the semantic democracy of ruin whilst advancing an exclusionary history of it, and, finally, chiding the work of archaeologists with one hand and praising them with another. If I can conclude that Pleasure of Ruins has entered some kind of ruin writing canon, attaining that monumental status of ‘Macaulay on Ruins’, then I do so and it does so through a host of speculations, contradictions and idiosyncrasies, all of which remain a pleasure of remains.


[1] Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1953), 100. My emphasis. Hereafter PR in the text.

[2] Lord Byron, Don Juan, ed. Truman Guy Steffan, E. Steffan and W.W. Pratt (London: Penguin, 2004), X 61.

[3] Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Review of Leopold von Ranke’s The Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. Sarah Austin”, Edinburgh Review, 72, October 1840, 227-58.

[4] “A Proclamation,” Punch 48, 7 January 1865, 9.

[5] Quoted in Sarah LeFanu, Rose Macaulay, 233.

[6] Sarah LeFanu, 177.

[7] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), 15.

[8] “Ancient Splendours: The Lure of Ruins”, The Times, 9th December 1953, 10.

[9] Robert Ginsberg, Aesthetics of Ruin (New York: Rodopi, 2004), 463.

[10] Brian Dillon, “Introduction: A Short History of Decay” in Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT, 2011), 11.

Désert de Retz

The ruins at Désert de Retz were built on the eve of the Revolution, between 1774 and 1789 by François Racine de Monville.  They present a rich and playful, temporally complex example of the Romantic obsession with ruins, close to Schlegel’s famous observation, “the works of the ancients have become fragments; the works of the moderns are fragments at their inception” (quoted in Levinson, 1986: 10). With over 17 follies packed within just 35 acres of landscaped garden, Monville juxtaposed the ruins of a gothic church with an Egyptian pyramid, a decaying Greek temple, and a series of rustic altars.  Although Diana Ketcham might call the Désert an “architecture of fantasy” (1994: 1), it is a fantasy rooted in the figures and forms of architectural history and rehearses in stone what Panini and Piranesi achieved in paint and acid.

The Broken Column, Désert de Retz
The Broken Column, Désert de Retz

At the centre of the garden lies what is known as ‘The Broken Column’ an enormous Doric column 55 feet high and 50 feet wide.  Inside, a spiral staircase connects 5 floors and approximately 20 rooms making Monville’s column a ruin that functions, a ruin in which to dwell.  The formal, antiquarian response to the column might be to follow the proportions of the Doric order, imaginatively reconstructing the 400-foot temple that the column suggests was once existent.  Nevertheless, the column demonstrates a demand for time, however gargantuan, fictional or fantastic; it demands time and a narrative explanation of its presence.

Cross-section
Cross-section view of the Broken Column

“Let us bring to our gardens the changing sets of the opera,” writes Louis de Carmontelle, contemporary of Monville and originator of the term ‘pay d’illusions’, “let us see there, in reality, what the most able painters could offer as decoration, all times and all places” (quoted in Bandiera, 1989: 83).   As an attempt to synthesize all times and all places, Monville’s pays d’illusions generates and discloses the narrative frames we impose upon objects of ruin.  The ruins are allegorical in Walter Benjamin’s sense, generating their allegorical content through, what Benjamin called, “the highly significant fragment, the remnant” (2003: 178).  The allegorical provocation rendered by Monville’s follies goes some distance in foregrounding their narraratological, semantic productivity.  It is the untimely nature of the ruin, an “untimeliness […] evident in how past, present, and future conspire to converge,”  that gives the ruin its allegorical force (Trigg, 2007: 131). The Broken Column and the follies that surround it stages a performance of this convergence; not only does the Column suggest a time of use and a past that could never have existed, but it wilfully confuses our attempts to divide the time of architecture according to notions of waste and want. Monville’s Column demonstrates the fundamental noncoincidence between the ruin’s outer appearance, the fragmentary distance between past, present, and future, and our narrative attempts to reconcile this noncoincidence.  The ruin demands an impossible narrative, an impossible reconciliation between these dispersed and converging times, disrupting our sense of the contemporary and the security of the ‘now.’  The Désert becomes spectral in Derrida’s sense, prompting the “disjointure in the very presence of the present, this sort of non-contemporaneity of present time with itself (1994: 25). If we make sense of ruins by imposing the temporal frames, the time of use and waste, for example, then Désert de Retz frames those frames and brings their plastic imposition to our attention.

Breton among the Ruins
Andre Breton's Surrealist Group, among the Ruins at Désert de Retz

So the time of ruin is a time that generates narrative.  We might explain some of the Romantic obsession with ruin by pointing towards ruin’s temporal malleability and intractability, its capacity to symbolise both the transience and endurance of material things.  The narrative multiplicity of ruins is a response to and translation of objects that seem, by their very nature, to lie in fragments.  We have seen how ruin-narratives do not simply resolve the rents and fissures of the ruin, but, by displaying their narratological tricks and tensions, these narratives can simultaneously display the fragile terms by which we compose and decompose meaning.  Indeed, the fabrication and projection of ruin puts the distinction between waste and want under particular scrutiny, disclosing how the time of architecture depends on whether buildings coincide with the projective time of human activity.  Whilst the ruin makes and narrates the passing of time, the making of ruins reveals how materiality is always matter both in and of our time.

[A longer version of this text was presented in June to the Romantic Realignments series, Oxford]